Recorded: 07 Jun 2004
What we find to our surprise was that these mutants defective in transposon silencing were defective in RNAi. In other words, RNAi at least one of the biological functions of it is to be, if you want to be cute you can say, to be the immune system of the genome. A system to protect the genome against invasion by transposable elements. That makes a lot of sense if you look at the human genome, fifty percent of that is transposons or some viruses. Only two percent goes to proteins. If you just look at the number you would say that the first function of the human genome is to contain transposons, it’s twenty-five times more important than making proteins.
Of course, that’s not true, because they are just parasites. As long as you don’t have too many you can live with them. But I think a priori you would expect is that you need a system to protect that ratio of getting out of hand much further.
You have to keep in mind that history is written by survivors. So who knows? Maybe there have been species in which the ratio of tranposons to useful sequences got out of hand and they’re no longer among us because they’re extinct. So you would expect such a system.
So when we discovered that these mutators were such a system in the worm, I really felt that we were on to something. This is important and interesting and has a general relevance.
Ronald Plasterk, is a Dutch politician of the Labour Party and successful scientist and molecular genetics. He studied biology at the Leiden University and economics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1981 he received the Dutch doctorandus degree in biology. In 1984 he earned a doctorate in mathematics and natural sciences from the University of Leiden.
After receiving his Ph.D. he moved to California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and worked as a post-doc (1985-1986) on the transposon sequences in DNA in the parasite Borrelia hermsii. Plasterk was also a post-doc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (1986-1987) where he studied Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode that is used as a model organism. His major area of research include genetics and functional genomics.
He came back to the Netherlands in 1987 and became a group leader and member of the board of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Between 1989 and 2000 he was director of the research school of oncology at the institute. From 1997 till 2000 he was professor of molecular genetics at the University of Amsterdam. In 2000 was appointed director of the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology (Hubrecht Laboratory) and at the same time he was a professor in developmental genetics at Utrecht University.
In February 2007 Ronald Plasterek was appointed minister of Education, Culture and Science in the fourth Balkenende government and he decided to end his scientific career. He held this position until February 2010. He is a member of the House of Representatives and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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